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Editorial: Amid a crime wave, APD gets another layer of bureaucracy?

Albuquerque remains in the throes of a crime wave that has held the city in its deadly grip for years. And 2021 is no exception. Homicides in January were at or near record levels. News coverage and neighborhood social media are replete with posts of people hearing gunshots, vehicles being stolen and strangers wandering through yards and driveways, checking for unlocked doors on homes and vehicles.

Mayor Tim Keller’s administration has made adding Albuquerque Police Department officers a priority and has made progress. Still the response to many of these calls from a chronically understaffed APD is: File a report. We don’t need to see your security camera video.

Meanwhile, the homicide unit has a huge backlog of cases and a depressing clearance rate. After major missteps in high-profile investigations like the Victoria Martens and Jacqueline Vigil murders, it’s clear the unit needs more staff, expertise and training. And Thursday, APD revealed it has just four narcotics detectives.

So what’s next on deck on the APD priority list?

Incredibly, it is hiring from four to 29 outside investigators to oversee the work being done by APD’s Internal Affairs unit in reviewing use-of-force complaints against officers. That higher number is almost comical in view of the fact that IA now numbers 15 officers with a mandate to increase the number to 25.

It is part of a stipulation order reached by the city, the Department of Justice and Monitor James Ginger, who has so far been paid $7.5 million to oversee a reform agreement APD entered into with the DOJ in 2014 after DOJ found a pattern of unconstitutional use of force in policing. Ginger issued his 12th status report last November, blasting APD’s processes in reviewing use of force. He said the department was on the brink of catastrophic failure – which is worth noting since it has been six years of his oversight and two years of the current administration at City Hall.

The city’s plan is in response to that 12th report and designed to head off a possible contempt proceeding, which could lead to receivership.

According to the order, which is awaiting action by U.S. District Judge James Browning, the new investigators would report to a yet-unnamed outside administrator and “for each use-of-force investigation evaluate the quality of the IA force personnel’s investigations and immediately notify APD and APD’s legal counsel of any deficiencies or misconduct by IA personnel related to their investigations.”

The order also mandates increasing the number of IA investigators to 25 – which could be hard to do since police officer union President Shaun Willoughby says some of the ones there now want out. The city said the number of investigators of the investigators could be anywhere from four to 29 – a range that in and of itself raises questions. Do we need four people or seven times that many? Seriously? Ginger, of course, would get another contract extension and more money.

This isn’t to say constitutional policing isn’t important, or that APD isn’t guilty at times of use of force outside the detailed policies that have been developed. But there has been – thankfully – a marked reduction in the kinds of misconduct that led to the agreement in the first place. Things like overwhelming and improper SWAT response or sending a couple dozen officers and K-9s to a report of a couple drunk guys fighting on a bench, one who pulled a knife. De-escalation has become a priority. Meanwhile, Interim Chief Harold Medina has noted a number of people involved in shooting incidents with APD had methamphetamine in their system – which makes de-escalation all the more challenging. Meth and guns are a tough mix.

What might have sounded like good news – just 3.7% of use-of-force complaints sustained in 2018, 1.7% in 2019 – was in essence dismissed by Ginger and used as an exhibit to support his contention IA was just going through the motions. The monitor’s complaints now center on process, so the answer apparently is to police the police who police the police, all at taxpayer expense and at a time the public is fed up with crime. City councilors should ask some hard questions about this new deal.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.